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Wednesday 16 November 2022

Ministerial conduct: my letter to the Prime Minister

By Dave Penman
FDA General Secretary Dave Penman has written to the Prime Minister calling on him to urgently reform the system that deals with complaints about ministers’ conduct.

Alan Fraser Images / Shutterstock.com

When entering office, Rishi Sunak spoke of his intention to govern with integrity. However, the reports that have emerged in recent weeks, of ministers bullying civil servants, perfectly illustrate why the current process for civil servants to raise a formal complaint is not fit for purpose and precludes any Prime Minister from adequately upholding standards in government. As such, I have written to the Prime Minister calling for him to urgently reform the system that deals with complaints about ministers’ conduct. You can read a copy of my letter here.

We regularly hear from members about why civil servants have no trust in this process. Rishi Sunak’s refusal to answer a straight question on whether he was aware of informal complaints when appointing Dominic Raab to the Cabinet strikes at the heart of the problem. Under the current system only the Prime Minister can instigate an investigation and then act as both judge and jury.

This flaw in the current system has been exposed again today. Raab has had to refer himself to the Prime Minister, asking Sunak to begin an investigation into himself, following two formal complaints about his behaviour. Although No.10 has briefed that the Prime Minister will appoint someone independent to conduct this investigation, there is no transparency about who will conduct this investigation, how they will be appointed, what the process will be or indeed how the outcome will be actioned.

As we saw in the case of Priti Patel, who was found guilty of bullying civil servants, including shouting and swearing at them, when an investigation does actually take place, the system allowed Boris Johnson to simply ignore this finding for his own political expediency.

This is a fundamental issue with the processes in place and has stained the reputations of successive administrations. That is why in my letter to the Prime Minister, I have called on him to urgently appoint an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, so there is someone in place who can carry out an investigation if concerns over ministerial conduct are raised.

But this alone will not address the Prime Minister’s total control over this process. Sunak should use the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and look at the successes of Parliament and Scottish Government to introduce a fully independent process that can give a fair hearing to both ministers and civil servants.

While the vast majority of ministers are dedicated public servants, the FDA takes accusations of bullying and harassment very seriously. We cannot allow those that abuse their power to act with impunity and impact the wellbeing of our members.

I made this point when I spoke to Kay Burley on Sky News, Sarah Montague on Radio 4, Iain Watson on BBC News and Carole Walker on Times Radio

We hope that Sunak will see that the current drip-feed of public accusations serves no one’s interests and will take the necessary action to protect his civil servants and restore integrity at the heart of government.

Dave Penman is General Secretary of the FDA
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